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Of Olive Trees and Family Trees

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 25.02.2006:

By Leyla Zuaiter

This article first appeared in the November 2005 issue of This Week in Palestine.

A casual tourist passing the sign for the Badd Jaqaman Museum on Bethlehem’s narrow Najajra Street may vaguely wonder what evil deeds were done by an Italian outlaw in America’s Wild West to merit a museum named after him– and why it is found in Bethlehem, of all places. If he is curious enough to descend the few steps of the irregular complex to find out, he is guaranteed to emerge, both literally and metaphorically, from a different place than that he entered, with a new-found appreciation for all things Palestinian. This may seem like an unlikely claim, even after the discovery that badd is not a misspelling of an English adjective, but an Arabic noun meaning “olive press.” However, those seeking a better understanding of Palestinian culture and society could do worse than start with this museum dedicated to the olive tree–so inextricably linked to the Palestinian economy, health, nutrition, crafts, social life and religion that it is the very symbol of Palestinian identity.

Once a home belonging to a widow from the Jaqaman family, this Ottoman building had been bequeathed to the Greek Orthodox Society. It was only on the eve of the Bethlehem 2000 celebrations that, with the help of the UNDP and Japanese funding, it was renovated and turned into a museum by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. In addition to comprehensive information on the olive tree, it not only offers a glimpse into the family life that lies at the heart of Palestinian society, but also into the rich, fascinating history of the families of Bethlehem in particular. The olive tree is quite literally the embodiment of any Palestinian’s personal family tree, bringing to mind the thoughtful ancestors who chose to plant it knowing that not they, but their descendents would live to enjoy its fruits. How could I not include the museum in the series of planned field-trips for a workshop on family history and identity I was about to conduct for the women’s group of the nearby Arab Educational Institute (AEI)?

Setting out by foot on a balmy June morning from the AEI in Bethlehem’s Anatra quarter just east of the Nativity Church, our first stop at one of the cemeteries next door reveals an alarmingly long list of extinct Bethlehem families, but the Giacaman family,1 as the name is more frequently transliterated, is not one of them. Their births, baptisms, marriages and deaths continue to be added to those of several hundred years of their ancestors found on the pages of an enormous square tome in one of the seldom-seen recesses of the Nativity complex. Several Giacamans are among those on the trip today, including AEI’s director, Fuad Giacaman. In one volume2 of his monumental series on Palestinian history culled from scattered, little- known sources, Hanna Abdullah Giacaman, another scion of this large extended family, has devoted a chapter to the origins of Bethlehem’s eight quarters. Each quarter traditionally consisted of a group of extended families living in their own hosh—a tightly-packed fortress-like cluster of houses opening onto a courtyard, where formerly much of the household work was done, news was exchanged and, above all, stories were told.

Consider our destination, located in the Najajra quarter, which lies in a straight line, as the crow flies, from our starting point on the other side of the Nativity Church. One of the oldest quarters of Bethlehem, it was originally settled by an Arab Christian tribe which arrived from Najran, Yemen, before or with the Arab Muslims in the seventh century, as well as the Ghathabra family group which had come earlier from Greece. This is only one example of the trunk of a Palestinian family tree, illustrating the many rings of the succeeding civilizations which have fused with the original inhabitants to make this people.

Excited by the secrets of the cemetery—for women in Palestinian society, whether Christian or Muslim do not normally frequent cemeteries—the ladies lag behind a bit and we are late in arriving at the nearby badd. But the curator, Iyad Hamdan, takes our tardy arrival in stride. As he accompanies us around the museum, shimmery mirages of the Bethlehem area and its inhabitants from different moments in history emerge like genies from the collection of olive oil lamps, or siraj as they are called.

Take this man of the Ottoman period with the worried expression on his face as he makes his way from his village to the badd, his donkey laden with the olives he hopes to press. Will there be a long line at the press this time? Is it worth leaving the olives at the badd, going home and returning to pick up the pressed oil, braving the trek in the dangerous countryside twice–or should he and his beast put up in one of the rooms provided on the premises and wait until the olives are pressed in the massive stone mill upstairs? After having his oil measured in one of the purpose-made pottery, tin or brass vessels, such as those displayed in that pleasing still-life against the wall, he might try taking some of his oil home in one of those new glass containers over there, in which the Turks transported chemicals. Following his neighbour’s advice, he has acquired one and cleaned it out. Still, he is not sure.

In this corner, the simple sticks leaning against the wall and the baskets made of olive twigs, each named according to size, shape or function, seem to rise of their own accord, dancing their way, as if in a Palestinian Fantasia, to an ancient terraced olive grove. The official date for olive picking has been announced. For several weeks watchers have been stationed in the grove’s watchtower to make sure no one tries to get a head start. The ladders are already set against the trees. The tarpaulin is spread on the ground. Women in their embroidered dresses or thobs, the vibrant red threads standing out against the dull green olive leaves, are already chanting, “Olives turn into lemons!”

The men now climb the trees and pick the olives, throwing them down to the waiting women and children. Somewhere in the distance the smell of a fire fuelled by the wood and pits of olives wafts their way. Time for a break from their labour of love, for labour and love it is in equal measure. Olives and olive oil will almost certainly form part of the snack which will give them the strength to resume their work. Later at home, they can wash off the dust and ravages of the day with a bar which once formed part of the intriguing ziggurat-like stacks of olive oil soap in Nablus, or apply olive oil to their work-roughened skin, dry hair or aching muscles.

When it comes time to distributing the olives or olive oil, they won’t forget the relatives in their extended families, who for one reason or another were not present at the harvest. For hard times are indeed come when a Palestinian has to buy olive oil or olives, which are almost a birthright. With slight modifications, this scene might be witnessed right up to the present.

Mesmerized by the spell woven by the warp of Iyad’s words and the objects around them on the one hand, and the weft of the stories of their grandparents and their own memories on the other, the ladies hardly know how they have arrived upstairs. Fuad Giacaman prolongs the spell a few more minutes as he recounts some of his memories of growing up in the quarter, evoking memories of past generations when olives might be pickled in the courtyard by day and the olive oil lamp would cast its shadows around the tiny vaulted rooms at night. Then, following the light, we are surprised to find ourselves on the second-floor landing of an external staircase. The women vow to come again, bringing their children and out-of-town guests.

If these women, who have lived their whole life in the area, come out feeling that they had discovered a great deal about their heritage, what about the foreign visitor? By the time you leave the museum, you will know more about the olive tree, Bethlehem and Palestine in general, than you ever thought to ask. You will understand that the Palestinian presence on, and attachment to, their land is as deeply rooted as their national tree. Yet even then, you will only have uncovered the tiniest fraction of what there is to know about this warm, resilient people and the place of the olive tree in the incredible richness and diversity of their history, culture, folklore and traditions—a heritage, like their olive groves, under growing threat, as portrayed in the video entitled, Blessed Are the Olives produced by AEI’s women’s group, which they presented to Iyad as they left.3

If you hurry, you might just make it before the end of the olive harvest, which started a couple of weeks ago. But why not plan ahead for next year and join one of the tours such as that offered by the YWCA of Jerusalem4 and participate in the olive harvest yourself?

Badd Giacaman

Hours: 8-2:30 daily except Sunday

Location: Najajra Street, Bethlehem

Mobile of Curator Iyad Hamdan: 0599-358919

Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities/Bethlehem: (972) (2) 274 1581/2/3

Article photos by UNDP/PAPP archive – Steve Sabella

1 Various theories are put forward to explain the family name. For example, some think that this family is a descendent of an Italian Crusader, while others counter that in that case they would live in the Tarajmeh quarter established during that era, attributing the name to a deviation of “Loqman” an Arab name instead.

2 Giacaman, Hanna Abdullah; Beit Lahem munthu Aqdam Azmina Hatta 1800

3 For more about the Arab Educational Institute, see “Windows to Palestine, Windows to Peace” in the July 2005 issue of This Week in Palestine.

4 The YWCA, tel. 02-6282593, also has an olive planting campaign to replace destroyed trees.

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